Barbara Boxer’s lessons as she departs and Kamala Harris arrives

California Attorney General Kamala Harris will take the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer, who stood up for California interests and formed bipartisan partnerships.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris will take the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer, who stood up for California interests and formed bipartisan partnerships. Associated Press file

On Tuesday, Kamala Harris will take the oath of office to become California’s newest U.S. senator. We hope she has taken the time to soak up a little of the wisdom Barbara Boxer gained during her 24 years in the seat.

Ever since Harris won election Nov. 8, Beltway insiders have been chattering about her as one destined for bigger things. True enough, Harris is an intelligent and polished politician, who will challenge President-elect Donald Trump and Republicans, and be in much demand on the Sunday talk and cable news shows.

But her first job must be to deliver for California. In that role, Boxer can offer a few lessons.

Boxer, an unapologetic liberal, made her name by advocating for women’s health, gender equality, peace and minority rights. But her legislative achievements came on public works issues such as highway and water system funding.

When one thinks of Boxer and her many liberal causes, long-haul trucking does not come first to mind. But in an interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member, she recounted battles with a Southern state representative who would do the trucking industry’s bidding by seeking to insert language into transportation bills that would pre-empt state laws that require paid bathroom and lunch breaks for truckers.

Her answer would be: You want to kill the highway funding bill? And he would relent.

It’s the sort of insider issue that garners little attention, and definitely isn’t one that propels politicians to national prominence. But it is the stuff of serious legislating, and it matters to working people. Coming from a state where the economy depends on imports and trucking, it’s also an issue worthy of Harris’ attention.

As Boxer learned, relationships matter. To get much of anything done, Boxer needed alliances with Republicans with whom she disagreed.

The liberal champion of the environment and a fiery Democratic partisan, Boxer has called climate change the “greatest challenge to hit the planet.” And yet she became best of friends with Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the climate change-denying conservative’s conservative, who once brought a snowball to the Senate floor to illustrate what he calls the hoax of global warming.

The Associated Press described them as the odd couple, who set aside philosophical differences and did far-reaching work for the benefit of their constituents and the nation.

On the day last month when Boxer gave her farewell speech, she singled out Inhofe, who gave a touching testimonial: “Confession’s good for the soul, Barbara, but I want you to know, I’m truly going to miss you around here.”

Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Boxer, the vice-chairwoman, took the lead writing last year’s massive legislation to fund water, flood control and environmental restoration projects across the nation, from Lake Tahoe to Flint, Mich.

It would have been a fitting swan song for Boxer, except that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., added a rider that could increase water deliveries from the Delta to Central Valley farmers.

It was too much for Boxer. She warned that the provision could lead to more dam construction and might be the death knell for the fishing industry in California, and she voted against her own bill.

In other words, Boxer left the Senate as she arrived 24 years ago, taking a stand and sticking to her principles. And that is the most important piece of wisdom Boxer could pass on to Harris.

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